Garden between City and Sea

Arverne by the Sea, Rockaways, New York

This urban backyard in the newly-developed seaside community of Arverne, on the gritty Rockaway peninsula in Queens, New York, was a barren sandlot identical to dozens of neighboring plots when the homeowners first contacted the design team.

The clients, avid surfers, were drawn to the Atlantic-front neighborhood by their love of the ocean and beach environs. They laid out several objectives for the garden: first, they wanted a private garden retreat for small gatherings that would be comfortable to occupy and beautiful to look at from their first and second-floor picture windows. They needed some space to grow fruits and vegetables. They asked for materials and plants that could be easily maintained without the use of chemicals. And, as new homeowners, they were constrained to a Spartan budget. For the sake of frugality, they hoped to do all of the plant installation and hardscape construction themselves, so they challenged the landscape architects to work with materials, construction techniques, and equipment readily accessible to the average “do-it-yourselfer.”

The design inspiration for the garden is the cultural and ecological context of Rockaway Beach. Arverne, like much of the Rockaway peninsula, was originally a dune landscape populated with those select coastal plants that could withstand the sandy soil, salt air and strong ocean winds. The resort community that sprung up here in the 1930s was subsequently razed as a slum in the 1960s, and very soon afterward, the area returned to much the same landscape as its pre-development condition. It was self-evident that this was the correct plant palette for a sustainable, low-maintenance garden for clients so passionate about the beach that they are willing to commute nearly two hours each way to their jobs in Manhattan. Thus the design incorporates much of the plant material found in the surrounding dunes – including Amalanchier canadensis, Myrica pennsylvanica, and Arctostaphylos uva-ursi – as well as many other salt-tolerant, sand-loving natives. The selection of woody material and perennials was also orchestrated with a careful eye toward maintaining interest throughout the seasons, and the layered planting design contributes to a feeling of lushness and capaciousness within the compact plot.

The garden is loosely organized into two “rooms” based on solar access: to the north, nearest the house, is a kitchen garden that takes advantage of unimpeded sun; to the south, partially shaded by an adjacent church wall, is the social garden. The two spaces are connected by a narrow boardwalk recalling the signature feature of Rockaway Beach, which boasts one of the longest boardwalks in the nation. The spaces are separated tacitly by a scrim of clump bamboo and experientially by the arrangement of the rear deck, which was inspired by the image of a raft drifting away from its dock. The deck is detached from the boardwalk path and sits slightly elevated, appearing to float within the planted border.

Due to the unique circumstances of the garden’s construction, the role of the landscape architect was neither traditional nor formal. The process of realizing the project was one of constant collaboration, discussion, and hands-on demonstration between the designers and the clients. Rather than a static plan, the design evolved as a series of sketches and field markings passed back and forth over many site visits as the construction progressed. Every decision immediately faced the test of practicality: plant sizes were limited by the height and weight the clients could roll from their garage door, through the house, to the backdoor on a skateboard; plans for the deck were repeatedly revised as the clients’ skills and tool chest grew; construction details were not illustrated in a set of drawings, but rather worked out with tools-in-hand.

The result is a landscape that is uniquely context- and client-specific, and sustainable not only by merit of its design but because of the intense personal investment of the owners. The garden sets a new precedent for design quality in “do-it-yourself” construction because of the meaningful involvement of design professionals. In these sobering economic times, it is encouraging to remember that high design does not imperatively carry a high price tag. Further, the project demonstrates a highly accessible mode of working as designers, and posits Landscape Architecture as a valuable and relevant service to a group in the market – the working- and middle-class “D-I-Y-ers” – who may never before have considered our work affordable or necessary.

Just as the design process for this project was highly personal, so are the ongoing rewards of its fruition: each summer, the clients treat the landscape architects to a serviceberry pie from the garden harvest.